Advancing communications measurement and evaluation

Ongoing Education in PR and Communications: What is Necessary?

Last year, when we looked at some of the barriers that keep PR and communications professionals from conducting real measurement work, one of the obstacles noted was that it is hard to expand awareness.

Because the paths that people take to land in public relations and communications are so varied, it’s hard to reach all of those who might need to be measuring their work. PR professionals do not need to have followed a specific course of study to get a PR job, nor are there any continuing education requirements or certifications, as there are in other fields.

The result of this is that there are fairly dramatic differences in how PR is practiced, along with what is considered acceptable.

One thing that would potentially benefit the profession, by introducing some application of standards, would be ongoing education. Ongoing ed, whether it’s to attain certifications or just to stay on top of changes or learn more about measurement, is important. It keeps us fresh and challenged. It opens us up to new ways of doing things and can help us serve clients (internal or external) better.

What kinds of training should PR professionals look for?

Ethics training for PR pros

Every profession seems to have its less-than-above-board members, and PR is no different. PR professionals are routinely depicted on TV and in movies as fudging the truth, “spinning” stories, or being downright dishonest and lying on behalf of clients.

We all bristle at these depictions (or at least we should). This is why I winced when I read the recent headline on Ragan.com that announced in bold, “Report: More than half of PR pros are willing to create fake news.” This is not a good look.

The data in the piece are a bit less discouraging than the headline suggests, but still not super-flattering. While 72 percent say that creating “fake news” is wrong, fully 28 percent are willing to make stuff up “when push comes to shove.” (The piece does not define what that means exactly, but my hunch is that it falls somewhere in the range of “client demanded it” to “I wanted to look good.”)

The “more than half” figure cited in the headline came from those willing to engage in questionable activity such as telling “white lies,” sensationalizing boring stories to make them more palatable, and writing click-bait headlines. I’m not sure if the headline of the Ragan piece is trying to be a bit meta or what, but I think it falls into this category—depending, of course, on how one defines fake news.

Ethics questions come up all of the time. The recent turmoil at Papa John’s Pizza brings several ethical questions up for PR firms. As the PRWeek piece notes, what are the obligations to a client if the client is behaving in an illegal or highly inappropriate manner? Even seasoned professionals wonder what is going to happen to them if they take a stand against a client and the client ends up dropping their firm.

What about taking on questionable clients in the first place? Having PR counsel isn’t a Constitutional right like having legal representation for the accused is—so what takes precedence, assisting a client in crisis, or protecting the reputation of the PR firm?

Firms have been caught double-billing, sending fake letters of support to lawmakers, and so on. Ethics training might be one of those areas that people roll their eyes upon hearing, but doing periodic ethics workshops provides employees with the confidence to do the right thing in tough spots—which ultimately could save a PR firm from having a crisis of its own.

Social Media Training

While we seem to have reached a bit of a plateau of new social platforms being introduced, constant changes to existing social platforms are a source of constant stress to communicators—or at least many of them.

Kami Huyse of Zoetica heard this complaint so frequently that she recently launched a channel on IGTV (Instagram’s new platform) that provides a quick rundown of feature changes that pop up on social channels.

No matter how often you use social channels, the constant changes, adjustments, and algorithm tweaks means it’s hard to keep up on every aspect that could affect your business or your client work.

Facebook and Twitter in particular will most likely continue to make changes to everything from their advertising to privacy protections. Communicators will need to stay on top of these changes, whether that means seeking out formal training or doing some self-guided ongoing education.

APR

If you’re talking about public relations and ongoing education and training, at some point, someone is going to mention the APR process. It is a voluntary accreditation program for public relations professionals, consisting of an application, study/coursework, a panel presentation and an exam (administered by computer). Those who successfully complete the program and receive an APR are expected to participate in ongoing training to maintain their certification.

The benefits of obtaining an APR are fairly evident. A practitioner who is willing to go through the process is clearly committed to the profession and must demonstrate strategic thinking, ethical decision-making, and so on in order to attain an APR. It is not without cost (currently listed on the website at $385 in fees), and you must be a member of one of the nine participating organizations or involved in teaching public relations at an accredited higher education institution to apply.

The cost is one potential negative, as the participating organizations likely have membership fees too—so, if you’re an independent practitioner who is a member of PRSA, the out of pocket cost will set you back your annual PRSA fee on top of the APR fee. The panel portion requires a portfolio of work to be presented, which could present a problem for some PR practitioners, particularly those who do a lot of confidential client work.

However, the biggest thing that seems to prevent PR professionals from going through the APR process is that it’s just not really considered necessary. There are plenty of very talented public relations professionals out there who do not have their APR.

Because there are so many paths to get into public relations, it is unlikely that an APR designation ever will become a required certification. My own path was through my work in government, which led to a position in the public affairs practice group at FleishmanHillard—no APR was required or to my memory even mentioned.

The APR is an achievement for any PR professional who attains it, that is certain. As part of a PR practitioner’s career path it is an indicator they are committed to the profession.

Ongoing education, whether self-driven through extensive reading or formal through a process such as an APR is important to staying at the top of our game, and up-to-date on the latest changes in the field of public relations and communications. There are a lot of resources out there—carve out some time to find something that appeals to you.

Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips

Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips

Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips is the Director of Marketing Communications for CARMA. She is also the founder of 4L Strategies, and has worked in communications and public affairs for more than 20 years. Her background includes work in politics, government, lobbying, public affairs PR, content creation, digital and social communications, and media analysis.
Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips
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